Hebrew and American Jews

My current research project about Modern Hebrew and contemporary American Jews has led me to a curious paradox: despite American Jews not speaking a lot in Hebrew, they sure do write and talk about the language a lot. Indeed, the number of articles and speeches given about Hebrew is staggering. To some degree, talk about Hebrew has become a recurring theme in American Jewishness, a discursive practice that touches upon many aspects of American Jewishness and its institutions. For me, the salience of Hebrew metalinguistic commentary has led me to think more carefully about the presence of this discourse as a lens for understanding contemporary American Jewish life. Instead of looking at what American Jews can do with Hebrew in terms of their linguistic competence—a term that linguists use to define individuals’ ability to effectively and appropriately communicate with other speakers of a language—I want to know more about what Hebrew does for American Jews, and how beliefs about the efficacy and value of the language are expressed in their discourse.

We’ve come a long way since David Rappaport compiled a list of “elementary Hebrew words” that all Jewish schoolchildren should know.  Instead, we can find articles like  Hillel Halkin’s 2005 contribution to  Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, in which he writes about the growth of English translation of Hebrew texts and what he sees as the potential deleterious effects of this phenomena for American Jews. Entitled, “A Culture Loses Its Flavor,” Halkin’s piece taps into a long-standing debate about what Jews lose or gain when they engage in translating practices. This trope is revealing about what it says about American Jews’ concerns and priorities, and led me to carefully attend to the metaphors that people use when they write about Hebrew. 

Halkin’s piece opens up a new way of resolving the confounding question of how it is that a language that few speak or read can matter so profoundly to a community. 

What, for example, does it mean if Hebrew is thought of as a flavor? Are some tastes more acceptable than others and whose palate decides? As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson remind us in their classic work Metaphors We Live By, metaphors shape our thinking and reasoning as we make sense of our world. Metaphors may also help us to make sense of American Jews’ priorities, values, and concerns at a moment the community is undergoing dramatic change about issues of authority, legitimacy, and boundaries. 

Halkin’s argument that Hebrew-English translators, along with “the lack of Hebrew education in America,” have made American Jews indolent about learning Hebrew. His argument also reveals anxieties about Jewish literacy’s role in the definition of an educated American Jew—a key phrase that circulates widely throughout pieces in the Berman Archive. Reading this article, I am struck by how much is being put on the shoulders of a language—and what scholars, communal leaders, and other stakeholders believe Hebrew can do for the American Jewish community, and importantly what they believe is at stake if this connection fails. From my perspective, Halkin’s piece opens up a new way of resolving the confounding question of how it is that a language that few speak or read can matter so profoundly to a community. 

Sharon Avni is Professor of Academic Literacy and Linguistics at BMCC at the City University of New York (CUNY). Her current book project Speaking of Hebrew: Language and the American Jewish Community explores the discursive, ideological, historical, and policy perspectives of contemporary Hebrew learning and usage in the United States. With Laura Yares (MSU), she is also currently at work on a project exploring Jewish learning in cultural arts settings, supported by the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. Her first co-authored book Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps was the winner of the 2020 National Jewish Book Award in Education and Jewish Identity.


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